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science, medicine and the environment | Mind Over Matter

If at First You Don't Succeed--All the Better

September 10, 1998|K.C. COLE | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

Everyone knows about the rewards of success. The stores bulge with (frequently successful) books on how to succeed in business, at school, in love, in spirit, and even in death.

Why is it that no one talks about the equally impressive rewards of failure?

In the natural and technological world, failure is a critical element in most successful endeavors, be they engineering projects or fundamental discoveries about the nature of the universe.

Consider a stiflingly hot day in the Valley when the air conditioner blows full blast and two teenagers decide to blow-dry their hair on the same electric circuit. Suddenly, there's an ominous silence. The circuit shuts down. The hair driers won't start, and the lights won't go on. In other words, failure.

Or is it? Consider what would have happened if the circuit breaker didn't trip under such a power surge. You could have had a fire on your hands, or worse. The blowing of a fuse is the kind of deliberate, purposeful failure that saves us from far worse fates.

"We rely on failure of all kinds being designed into many of the products we use every day," writes professor of engineering Henry Petroski in American Scientist. Failure, says the engineer, is often "a desirable end."

Among the ingenious failures engineered into everyday products are the perforations in postage stamps, which allow the gummed paper to give way easily along the tear line. Hoods and bumpers on cars are built to be easily crushed, the better to absorb the impact of a crash. Cracks in sidewalks are deliberately engineered weak points designed to shift as tree roots or earthquakes rattle the concrete; breaking cleanly at the line preserves the integrity of the square.

Petroski also mentions such natural engineering wonders as eggshells. A chick that couldn't peck its way out of its shell would be a dead duck. If the egg didn't break easily, says Petroski, the shell would become "an instrument of extinction" for its inhabitant. Either the egg fails, in other words, or the chicken does.

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In a sense, animals that hibernate for the winter and trees that lose their leaves slip into a purposeful "failure mode" that allows them to survive a hostile environment. People sometimes lose their memories after traumatic events--another kind of self-protection. Indeed, psychologists say forgetting is as important as remembering. If we remembered everything, we'd be hopelessly confused. So failing to remember is success.

Of course, chances are human beings wouldn't be around at all if it weren't for the spectacular failure of the dinosaurs--wiped out, scientists think, in the aftermath of a colossal cosmic impact. All of evolution is driven by genetic "mistakes"--mutations in DNA caused by breakage. Most of these "mistakes" are hazardous to our health, and their progeny soon die out. Others evolve into new, and successful, species.

Indeed, diseases like cancer are created by an overdose of success. Cells that should fail to divide somehow don't get the message, and proliferate out of control.

In science, failure and success often become hopelessly entangled. Many "successful" discoveries or inventions have come about because people made mistakes. Penicillin, like X-rays and the glue used in Post-Its, was discovered by accident.

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To find fertile ground for discovery, scientists often deliberately look for places where the laws of nature appear to break down, where known theory doesn't work, where established models lead to experimentally verified "mistakes." Like fault lines in the Earth, these rifts between experiment and theory are often places where a lot is going on.

Einstein's theory of relativity was born in part from the spectacular failure of previous physicists to understand such mysteries as the "luminiferous ether" that supposedly carried light waves through empty space, and the spectrum of colors emitted by hot objects.

These days, cosmologists fail to understand why 99% of the matter in the universe appears to be missing, why the universe appears to be younger than its oldest stars. Because of these "failures," the best minds in the business have turned their attention to figuring out the discrepancies.

After all, even Columbus discovered the Americas by mistake.

Wrong turns and missteps are not digressions on the road to a predetermined goal. On the contrary, they can be the most rewarding part of the journey.

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